Book Thoughts #8: „Between Wittenberg and Geneva” by Kolb and Trueman

Kolb and Trueman’s Between Wittenberg and Geneva: Lutheran and Reformed Theology in Conversation was on my to-read list ever since I heard that it is going to be published. Lutheran and Reformed churches have a lot in common. One would expect that this will lead to fruitful theological exchanges and indeed it is so in many parts of the world. In my native Poland, for instance, there is full intercommunion and sharing of pulpits between the Lutheran and Reformed Church. They also share one theological school and have mixed congregations in some places. And yet there seems to be relatively little contact or exchange of ideas happening between confessional/conservative Lutheran and Reformed bodies in North America. This book, therefore, appeared to be a valuable exception. And in some ways, it is so though I was hoping for more. 

Summary of Content 

Trueman states in the introduction that this book aims to outline Lutheran and Reformed positions on various doctrines with a view of how they differ both from one another and from revivalistic Evangelicalism.1 He explains that both himself and Kolb have noticed that their students struggle to differentiate themselves from Evangelicals as well as to grasp the scope and importance of differences between Lutheran and Reformed confessions. Between Wittenberg and Geneva is aimed as an answer to this problem. 

The book consists of eight chapters devoted respectively to eight important theological subjects: 1) Scripture and its interpretation, 2) Law and Gospel, 3) the person and work of Christ, 4) election and bondage of the will, 5) justification and sanctification, 6) baptism, 7) the Lord’s Supper, and 8) worship. Each chapter consists of two sections summarising Lutheran and Reformed positions which were written respectively by Kolb and Trueman. Sections on Lutheran theology generally focus on the works of Martin Luther and sporadically incorporate later developments in Lutheran thought. Trueman draws on a wider array of sources but he generally focuses on 16-17th century Reformed consensus, sometimes adding material from more contemporary thinkers like Bavinck. 

Thoughts on the Book

One thing that strikes me about this book that despite its subtitle there is a very little conversation happening in it. Kolb rarely mentions Reformed theology in his sections. Trueman interacts more explicitly with Lutheran theology but he still mostly limits himself to pointing out how the Reformed approach outlined by him differs from the Lutheran theology that was explained by Kolb. There is very little of meta-commentary on these differences. Authors do not try to evaluate them. They neither attempt any polemics nor offer any way forward in inter-confessional debates. 

There is, of course, a value in simply laying out classic Reformed and Lutheran positions on major doctrines side-by-side. Both contributors do a very good job in summarising their theological positions. Both write in an accessible but very informative way. Between Wittenberg and Geneva does, therefore, fulfil quite well the role of brief but dense introduction to classical teachings of two major branches of the Protestant Reformation. 

Nevertheless, much has happened since the 16th and 17th centuries that is left untouched. One would expect some comments on the Leuenberg Agreement in the section on the Lord’s Supper. And it seems significant that Lutheran and Reformed churches have united in some places in the world (even if the Prussian union is not remembered very fondly by confessional Lutherans). A reader is left wondering whether later discussions are of any significance for the authors? Do they envision a way in which confessional Lutherans and Reformed can not only acknowledge differences that arose in the 16th century but also have a fruitful conversation about them? We are clearly not in the same place we were in the 16th century. Philosophical commitments to certain metaphysical language that were once important are not that obvious anymore. Biblical studies have developed significantly and are increasingly non-confessional. And modern dividing lines seem to be increasingly intra-confessional rather than inter-confessional. One can think especially of great divisions within each tradition on the authority of Scripture, sexual ethics and gender issues. 

Despite the disappointing lack of conversation, it is a good book. Many sections are very pleasing to read. Kolb’s section on the Lutheran approach to worship is particularly helpful as he explains how everything was for Luther secondary to the preaching of the Word. One will also find in this book an explanation why Lutheran eucharistic theology should not be labelled as consubstantiation. It is a good place to start an exploration of both Lutheran and Reformed theology.

Robert Kolb and Carl R. Trueman. Between Wittenberg and Geneva: Lutheran and Reformed Theology in Conversation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017.

  1. Robert Kolb and Carl R. Trueman, Between Wittenberg and Geneva: Lutheran and Reformed Theology in Conversation, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017), x.

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